Thursday, 2 April 2009

The future is in our hands

The future is in our hands

By: Ben Gunn - HMP Shepton Mallet

Lifer Ben Gunn announces that he is the newly appointed General Secretary of the Association of Prisoners and challenges all prisoners to play their part in bringing about change

It seems that I have been ‘anointed’; a wizened hand reached down from Hull and passed on the baton that is the General Secretary of the Association of Prisoners - AoP. Perhaps it's because I tweak the management's tail through my comments in Inside Time; or maybe it's because I do love the politics!

Whatever the reason John Hirst, founder of the Association of Prisoners and winner of several important legal challenges, has passed the pen down the line to me. Some of you know me, I have been wandering the landings for 29 years and gracing the pages of Inside Time for so long I'm surprised you aren't sick of me.

What fewer people know is that I began this sentence when I was a youngster, standing in the dock in my school uniform having killed a friend. My tariff was 10 years but due to my bloody-minded refusal to keep my mouth shut I'm still here 29 years later. If there is one thing I just can't stomach it is abuses of power; and as the essence of prison is power, I have found myself at odds with management in most places I've been.

That attitude now sees me at the helm of an Association which has no formal structure and no list of members. In one sense, long may it stay that way; the Prison Service currently forbids us from organising nationally, claiming that we have no shared interests. That is just a reflection of their fear, because all prisoners obviously have shared concerns – we labour under a national set of rules, a national IEP system, a national psychology programme ... to claim otherwise is just plain silly.

One of the legal challenges I intend to make this year in the name of the AoP is against these petty restrictions and to stop the Prison Service saying we are allowed to organise but then throwing up so many barriers as to make it impossible.

However for the moment, we have to work with what we have - no national organisation. For the time being, what I want to do is develop the AoP into a loose collective of individuals who share a similar outlook, spread across the system. These are the people who take the time to help others with the perpetual ‘paper-chase’ that rules our futures; the ones who have the sense to stand up and resist the system’s excesses; the ones who stick their head up above the parapet and say their bit on the landings and in Inside Time.

Look around you; there is one of these people on every landing. There are those driven by outrage or despair; there are those driven by anger; and there are those driven by a deep understanding of the crass waste of life that is imprisonment. Some of these people have only their balls and brass-neck to offer. Some have a particular knowledge of psychology, law, prison, parole or the IEP system. All of these people have their effect and, little by little, change does happen. It may be a screw who thinks twice, or a management policy that is altered, but things do change. Now imagine how much more could happen if all of these professional pains in the arse got together and developed new ideas, swapped tactics to help resist the stupidities that comprise our daily life. Imagine if their particular skills were offered to help other cons who are currently being screwed over.

I want the AoP to foster a network of active prisoners who can all subscribe to the same broad agenda and coordinate between each other. As time passes, and the conditions change, then I would like to see a more formal structure being developed, with a list of members who are able to organise and vote for the Association’s officers. Once our legal challenge is won, then each wing, each prison, will be able to organise and elect its representatives, and the AoP leaders will exist only because you chose them.

Alongside this informal collective, John Hirst and myself will be reaching out to invite support for various aspects of the AoP’s agenda from prisoner-friendly groups and individuals in high positions and low places. As these links develop, we hope that the loose collective of members will become more focused and formal - but still with the same aims.

As well as challenging the restrictions placed on the Association, I can now reveal that I am the un-named party who took up last month’s front page in Inside Time - I am attempting to force the government to deal with the prisoners’ vote judgment that they have avoided for four years. Along with this, I intend to challenge the fact that we are being used as forced labour for outside companies.

But this isn't 'someone else’s struggle'. It is the struggle of every prisoner on every landing to be treated decently. Each of us can play a part, in a thousand small ways. Each time you request a copy of your OASys and demand the errors be removed; each time you write in the food comments book; each time you challenge a psychologist; each time you refuse to be spoken to like an idiot; each entitlement you demand... in itself, each of these is a small gesture, an infinitesimal ripple; however each in itself also speaks volumes; for each is a sign that as individuals we are autonomous, thinking human beings and not rabble to be dismissed and misused.

Each small step any of us takes is an assertion that we are individuals, not 'bodies', and that what we say matters. Each tiny step builds our confidence and shows us that we can make a difference. And once we have that confidence in our own voice, then we can begin to speak louder and more firmly. The future is in our hands. Welcome to the Association of Prisoners.


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